Learning to think big

India and South Africa, without the baggage

By Diplomacy - K.P. Nayar
  • Published 20.05.15
Aishwarya Rai, Sun City, South Africa, November 20, 1994

South Africans want Sushma Swaraj, who is on her first visit to Pretoria, to think "BIG" as the external affairs minister of a close partner country with emotional, ethnic - and now, multi-faceted - relations with them. B stands for business, I for India and G for glamour.

The role of glamour in India's relations with South Africa is often not fully grasped in this country. At a popular level, South Africans never tire of telling Indians visiting Sun City that it was at their sprawling Sun City Entertainment Centre that Aishwarya Rai was crowned Miss World. The external affairs minister may have heard more than most similar visitors about it if only because last November was the 20th anniversary of the crowning of Rai, an event with symbolism that went beyond just any routine beauty contest. In 1994, South Africa had just emerged from apartheid and had conducted its historic first elections with the participation of all races. The free election brought Nelson Mandela to power as the first black president. Excitement was high everywhere and South Africans - of all races, most Indians included - had hoped that their candidate for Miss World, Basetsana Makgalemele (now sedately Basetsana Kumalo) would come out on top among the pageant's 87 contestants.

But she lost narrowly to Aishwarya Rai and had to be content with being the first runner-up. South Africans were not bitter. Many Sun City residents told me that they would have felt let down if the 2nd runner-up, the Venezuelan Irene Ferreira, had beaten both Rai and Makgalemele. Venezuela had made a habit of bagging the crown at similar pageants year after year and Ferreira was white. On the other hand, South Africans instantly took to Rai and had no difficulty in adopting her as one of their own. That was because, unlike the Venezuelans, Indians are not strangers to South Africa. They are an inalienable part of South Africa's social, cultural, demographic and political fabric.

Estimates vary, but the most reliable statistics puts the number of Indians in South Africa at 1.1 million. Nelson Mandela's first cabinet formed after the 1994 elections, had five ministers who were of Indian origin. The present cabinet has far fewer of them, but that is more because of the B factor in the BIG way South Africans now think of India. Businesses, especially of the high-tech variety, have replaced images of India that were once identified with the struggle against apartheid: the Natal Indian Congress, the Transvaal Indian Congress or protests against the apartheid regime's Asiatic Land Tenure Act, which once restricted the free movement of Indians and earmarked the areas where they could live.

There is no better way to get a flavour of how Indians were looked upon during the apartheid years and soon after the dawn of full freedom for all South Africans than in Mandela's own reminiscences: "I often visited the home of Amina Pahad for lunch, and then, suddenly, this charming woman put aside her apron and went to jail for her beliefs. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could." South Africa's presidential website described Pahad thus while awarding the civilian honour of "The Order of Luthuli in Silver" to her: "Amina Pahad was an ordinary woman of Indian descent who was inspired by extraordinary ideals...she was deeply moved by the oppression she witnessed as a young woman."

Mandela writes in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that "the Indian campaign became a model for the type of protest that we in the [African National Congress] Youth League were calling for.... The Indians' campaign harkened back to the 1913 passive resistance campaign in which Mahatma Gandhi led a tumultuous procession of Indians crossing illegally from Natal to Transvaal. That was history. This campaign was taking place before my own eyes."

Sushma Swaraj's challenge is to recognize that if Gandhi's 1913 campaign was history for Mandela's contemporaries, it is now pre-history to the present generation of South Africans. Gandhi still offers a variant in South Africa to his legacy elsewhere. That is why the only statue anywhere in the world of the apostle of non-violence wearing legal robes is in South Africa. The statue is typical of an "African" approach to Gandhi, which is more practical and less reverential, although this does not mean any less respect for the Mahatma.

Several years ago, South Africa's leading financial newspaper, Business Day, used Gandhi to advertise itself. "Take a Stand," proclaimed the daily's huge billboards with a Gandhi picture all along the highway from Johannesburg to Pretoria. The promotional campaign did not evoke protests as they would have done in India. During elections in 2002, the ANC used Gandhi's images on its billboards with a question to voters: "Who would Gandhi have voted for?" This time the ANC's opponents protested, but their protest was political because they did not want votes to be cast for the ANC in Gandhi's name instead of themselves.

New Delhi's leaders and officials must stop harking back to the Mahatma in their dealings with Pretoria because the nature of engagement between India and South Africa and their composing elements have undergone a sea change since 1994, when it became possible to elect a South African of any race as president.

Typical of the new dimensions of the bilateral relationship was the experience of an Indian consul-general in Johannesburg more than a decade after the end of apartheid had brought changes in South Africa that were inconceivable at one time. It was his first meeting with one of South Africa's richest entrepreneurs, member of a new class of Indian immigrants who had gone there after apartheid. This entrepreneur came from the high-technology sector, the kind who had no place in South Africa's Indian diaspora before racial equality was allowed.

Naturally, the conversation between the diplomat and the new-age businessman did not cover such traditional areas as social justice, poverty alleviation or pan-African development. The consul-general's family is home to one of the most well-known gynaecologists in north India. As it happened, the businessman discovered that when his mother was expecting him, his delivery was performed by a doctor from the diplomat's family. Ditto with all his siblings. Regrettably, in New Delhi, such changes in dealings with the Indian diaspora - which are visible on the ground in Durban or Johannesburg - have not been appreciated quickly enough to think out of the box.

In considering deepened economic relations with her host country, which is part of Swaraj's agenda, some infrastructure indicators are valuable for the Narendra Modi government, whose priority is infrastructure development. Almost half of sub-Saharan Africa's entire power generation comes solely from South Africa. Similarly, about half of the region's gross domestic product can also be sourced to South Africa. Therefore, it was somewhat baffling when the United Progressive Alliance government was lukewarm towards South Africa's admission some years ago to BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a potential powerhouse of emerging economies. That was especially so because New Delhi was already working in concert with Pretoria in another grouping, IBSA: India, Brazil and South Africa.

The original proposal to admit South Africa into BRICS came from China. Because India dragged its feet on a consensus, Beijing walked away with a lot of goodwill in a country where India has always been better placed than China. In dealing with South Africa, India's political leadership has often exhibited a weakness of resting on its laurels. It has not been nimble-footed enough in adapting to changes. Swaraj has an opportunity during her visit to wipe the slate clean and turn over a new leaf because she is not hamstrung by any baggage from the UPA's legacy.